China’s rules-based order in the Air Defense Identification Zone

Forgiving any translation errors – which are possible, take a look at this comment about the significance of China’s Air Defense Identification Zone from one Ma Jun, a research fellow of the department of foreign military studies.

“It shows China is willing to participate in the formulation of international rules. Like it or not, China has set up a new ‘rule of game’ in the East China Sea. China will no longer allow others to unilaterally establish international rules, especially those concerning its neighbors and itself.”

So, China’s “participation” is the unilateral creation of rules in its region like the ADIZ, as opposed to what it sees as the “unilaterally” established international rules by others. But the more interesting idea comes next. Jun writes: 

“China will not blindly obey to the rules not agreed upon by China as it now has the desire and capability to guarantee the regional security. This is a fact other countries should learn to accept. As a member of the international community, China should not be excluded from the formulation of international rules.”

I am not sure China can actually guarantee regional security, which takes a mix of significant military commitments and diplomatic flexibility. But the assumption that rules come unilaterally seems to say a lot about China’s understanding of rule-making in general. It shows the kind of brittleness in the China’s relations with its neighbors.

Frankly, if Ma Jun simply wrote that China expects a big seat at the table on these matters, one befitting its size and influence, his position would be much clearer. Instead, the explanation that China shouldn’t be excluded from the “formulation” of international rules hints that the “formulation” of rules by China by necessity involves a top-down approach at home and abroad. This is the kind of thing that rattles neighbors and causes uncertainty.

An American message – made in China: Biden and media freedom


Is it just me or is Biden growing more confrontational in his approach to China?

The word from China was that there would be no budging on the air defense identification zone after five and a half hours of talks between Biden and Xi, which ran overtime. Although early reports also suggest there has been some face-saving de-escalation on both sides, too. Frankly, China can make a case for maintaining its ABIZ, as the US and other nation’s do.

What seems to bother the world about the ABIZ is:

1) China’s decision to include the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands firmly in the map.
2) Moreso, the abruptness of the announcement. And here, China is either disingenuous to claim they had no idea other countries would care. It’s just as likely this is an example of China more or less addicted to surprise as a tactic.

Nonetheless, the zone likely took up considerable amounts of Biden’s time with Xi. And with the roll-out of the ABIZ and the inflexible attitude from Beijing has sent shudders through the region and beyond, arousing memories of past countries who asserted their will on their neighbors and looked for acommodation in response. Possibly the growing recognition from Biden that China, for all its talk of “peaceful rise” is a one-way train on issues like this, has begun to look for other levers to pull.

I can’t imagine the PRC being pleased by Biden’s decision to meet with US journalists who are about to get their work visas cancelled for unfavorable coverage of the government and Communist Party. Never a good look. But don’t expect CCTV and Xinhua to show pictures of Biden meeting with American journalists excluded from China. Nonetheless, it’s a powerful message, made in China, for external consumption.

And it’s another dividing line between China and US. It’s a barrier in an era of open borders.

If the outside would can’t prevail in getting China to abandon its policy of diplomacy by surprise and slow erosion of Japan’s place in the East China Sea, the US has little incentive to keep quiet about media freedom.

Rather, the US has more incentive to talk up the fundamental disagreement on media freedom in China. In fact, media freedom increasingly acts an issue with very little downside to the US, even as political masters in China (and Russia for that matter) cringe at its mention.

Based on the images of Biden, you could be forgiven for concluding the trip was a success, and a fun one at that.

But in this way, Biden is the classic American politician armed with an inscrutable smile – a grin not unlike Obama’s in St Petersburg days after cancelling the US-Russia summit amid the Snowden affair.

In the case of Biden, going mano-a-mano with Xi over the air defense while smiling broadly for all the cameras gives a hint of what kind of happy warrior he would likely be as president. Biden recognizes that China is a trade issue, a security issue, a civil society issue. It won’t be going away anytime soon, certainly not before the 2016 presidential campaign. So for now, he can only grin hard for the cameras and grapple with it.


China’s response to B-52 overfly of the senkaku/Diaoyu Islands

China has not responded with one voice after the US sent planes over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. But of the mix of reactions, one stands out to me. The WallStreet Journal ChinaRealTime blog contains a post called “Chinese Bloggers Turn Fire on Beijing Amid U.S. B-52 Challenge

The blog notes the criticism of the PLA by China’s legion of bloggers on Weibo. Of those reactions, two quotes are the most intriguing.

“The immediate reaction (from U.S.) with both words and action shows the adventurism in China’s decision over the air defense zone, and the passive and embarrassing consequence resulting from that,” Pan Jiazhu, a well-known columnist on military issues who goes by Zhao Chu on his verified Weibo account, wrote.


So China is embarrassed by the B-52 flyover. But it’s “military hardliners” who made the decision on the no-fly zone.

“Military hardliners created this situation and made a no-fly zone, thinking they can play with little Japan, which has brought out U.S. bombers and slapped hardliners in the face,” art and culture critic Wu Zuolai wrote. “Where’s the hardliners’ spokesman? How do we end this?”

And it points to this split within China between the civilian and military rule. Surely, a decision as provocative as the creation of the air defense identification zone would be flagged to leaders outside the military. But maybe it wasn’t. And if it wasn’t, it suggests that Xi doesn’t have complete control over the military. Parts of the military can still freelance on these territorial issues. Hence, the confusing decision to spring the ADIZ on the world as well as the conflicted response from China in its aftermath. 

I think this is at the heart of the US unease about China’s power in Asia. It’s not necessarily that China is going to supplant the US as the world’s number one economy. Rather it’s that China remains a developing country riven by internal divisions, making its future course at home and in the region incredibly difficult to predict.

A US-Soviet analogy for the Asia-Pacific situation

A really disappointing piece by an American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Auslin on China’s regional aggression. But before I proceed, recall that the AEI was a real hotbed of thinking behind the disastrous Iraq War – so treat thinking about war from this group with great caution.

With that warning on the table, Auslin gives some background to the Chinese military build up in Asia, and what a looming threat it’s going to be for US allies – as evidenced by China declaring its air defense identification zone and its plans to “reportedly” purchase Russian Su-35 fighters, “among the most advanced in the world.” He then goes on to lament the effect budget cuts are having with military planning. Note to Auslin, you might want to have a look around the AEI for the austerity hawks and ask them if budget cuts aren’t the solution to Obama’s America.

Auslin bemoans the cutbacks and the questions the US military’s ability to respond to China’s assertive/reckless behavior in the Pacific. It’s debatable if China’s air defense zone (already ignored by the US) is the opening move of a new Pacific War. But Auslin already has a solution for the US challenge in Asia. What’s the fix? Why spend up on the military, of course. He quotes US Air Force General ‘Hawk’ Carlisle discussing the readiness of US pilots in the region:

Perhaps Gen. Carlisle’s biggest concern is the reduction in flying hours. Regular training keeps U.S. pilots the best in the world. In 2014, however, the Air Force plans on cutting flying hours by 19%. With sequestration and budget cuts, American combat air forces currently are getting only between five and eight hours of flying per month. “That’s unacceptable,” Gen. Carlisle says, noting that the U.S. is approaching the training level of Soviet forces in the Cold War, which hampered their flying ability.

Yes, but General Carlisle and Mr Auslin, it wasn’t the Soviet pilots’ readiness that brought down that Communist country; it was the fact the Soviets spent so much on their military they failed to properly invest in and fund a livable, viable society. Today, there is a risk that China successfully leads the US toward a costly and risky arms race in which China fakes large military expenditures that the US actually makes. (links) And there is a real opportunity cost involved with these kinds of choices.

Analogies between the fortunes of the US and Soviet Union are inevitable. But one the most worrying parallels is of a country on such perpetual war footing that it can’t focus on keeping its own people clothed, fed and employed.

But don’t expect the military geniuses at the AEI to tell you this.